Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Stranger

I ordered THE STRANGER (1946), directed by Orson Welles and starring Welles, Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, from Netflix and it came in a sleeve that announced it was part of the “Film Noir Collection.” I would challenge the categorization of the film as “noir” on the basis of the simplicity of the moral struggle it portrays, and the too easy sense of justice it claims.

It is not as if Welles couldn’t do better. In TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), another film in which he both starred and directed, the moral status of all the characters is ambiguous at best. Here, though, Welles, as Franz Kindler, is almost cartoonish in his evil, the bĂȘte noir of Edward G Robinson’s Mr Wilson (and all good God Fearing patriotic types, I suppose). The rigidly upright Wilson rivals Dudley Do Right in his All American (or Canadian) goodness.

Welles portrays not only a Nazi, but the Nazi that masterminded the death camps. As such, Welles is indeed portraying an evil character—but he does so in an over the top, even campy, way. The arrogance of Kindler outstrips his intelligence, and he doesn’t come across as a real adversary for Wilson because of his blind self-assurance in his brilliance.

Mr Wilson (does he not have a first name, and such a bland last one, because he is representing all of virtuous American manhood?) is a war crimes investigator that chases Welles to Harper, Connecticut, where Kindler is in hiding as Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boy’s school named after the town. Wilson takes responsibility for releasing another Nazi so that he can follow that escapee to Kindler. The escapee flies unerringly home to his master, never thinking that he has been set up (more Nazi arrogance). Wilson acknowledges that this gambit is morally dicey, but in his towering indignation at what the Nazis have done, he proclaims “blast the repercussions, I will risk the bottom pits of hell” to get his man. We are made to believe that Rankin/Kindler somehow has the capacity to resurrect the entire Third Reich from his classroom in bucolic Connecticut, and will do so unless the avuncular, pipe- smoking Wilson can’t get his man.

Wilson’s monomania about catching Welles could be an occasion to explore how we become monsters in fighting monsters, but it is not. He brings Kindler to justice in ways that are completely cricket, Marquis of Queensbury, the good-guys-fight-fair-and-win-because-God-is-on-their-side kind of way. Wilson makes it seem like catching Kindler will somehow exonerate America for things like its sinful inaction about the Final Solution early in the war, fire-bombing Dresden, even for turning away boatloads of Jews looking for asylum before America joined the conflict.

In a strange twist Rankin, who marries Mary Longstreet (Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, gives an impassioned speech to Wilson at a dinner party wherein he proclaims that the Germans are waiting not for another Messiah but another Hitler (which is exactly what Kindler is doing), and that the Germans should be wiped from the face of the earth. He proclaims that all Germans would rather worship Warrior Gods than the Judeo-Christian one (obviously the one they worship in Harper, a Norman Rockwell town if there ever was one, an American town for Americans, that is if you are an American who fears God and is heterosexual and white) and responds with a resounding yes to Mary when she says that surely he is not suggesting a “Carthaginian Solution” to the problem. It’s a bold move, this, Rankin espousing a doctrine running completely counter to his own, but of course the evil must have an Achilles heel, a tragic flaw, and Rankin does. When he tells Wilson that Marx was a Jew and not a German, Wilson knows he has found his man.

And there is more heavy handed stereotyping, not from Kindler, but from Welles the director. Kindler/Rankin is obsessed with clocks, and works tirelessly on the clock in the tower of the town church. I guess that German need for precision and order will out every time. When he finally fixes it, there is a little track that circles the tower, with an armor-less knight or angel with a sword chasing a gargoyle or devil into eternity (representing Wilson and Kindler, America and the Nazis, us versus them, you fill in the easy blanks, the way any propaganda movie will for you).

I couldn’t help but think of all the resonances the word Stranger has when watching the movie, from the way we tell little kids about “stranger danger” to Billy Joel’s song wherein he warns about “the stranger in yourself.” Even INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS pivots on the idea that you might know your neighbors so poorly you don’t notice they are really from another galaxy. It’s a fear as old as time itself, the fear of the evil one in disguise, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the evil one in glorious raiment, while goodness is garbed in the humblest of costumes. Wilson could be the proverbial frog prince. But just because it is a primal fear doesn’t mean it should be portrayed in a trivial, juvenile way.

The most interesting twist on this stranger theme is the one whereby Longstreet marries Rankin only to find out that he is not the man she thought he was. And it is way more than the fact that he has bad table manners and leaves the cap off the toothpaste, or that he gives up the pretense of romance to drink beer and watch wrestling on TV. Indeed, he starts off by poisoning her dog, and works his way up from there. The Nazi Wilson releases finds Kindler, and the good old boss kills him to avoid discovery. When it becomes clear that he must tell Mary what he has done, he makes up the most outlandish tale, and she buys it. She doesn’t believe Wilson or even her dear old Dad when they tell her who she has married, and what he has done.

It is as if the loss of her innocence is really the culprit here, and if she had not let romance, a man, and sex into her life, if she had just stayed home with dear old Dad, none of this would have ever happened. She lies for Rankin, won’t face the horror of it all, won’t allow the unthinkable to come to consciousness any more than the German people will, in Rankin’s words, allow the truth or their horrible error to become conscious to themselves. Another ham-handed irony there, when Robinson says that Mary’s unconscious will eventually force the truth to the surface, like the body working a splinter out of the flesh, in that it was a Viennese Jew came up with a lot of this theorizing about the unconscious. Until Mary discovers Rankin plans even on killing her, she stands by her man.

One of the most implausible things about the movie is the romance between Young and Welles. She looks young enough to be his daughter, and he is a humorless, charmless and pretentious bore. And the whole town seems smitten with him, what with his school master’s English and patches on the sleeves of his jackets (although it is Robinson who smokes the intellectual’s pipe).

How could there be any doubt about the outcome? Rankin possesses the requisite grandiosity and arrogance to think he can hide in plain sight, but Wilson finds him out. Still, Wilson decides to let things play out, instead of merely killing the monster, until Welles tries to kill Mary in the clock tower. He fails, and tries to hide. Then, in the most over the top scene in the movie, Rankin/Kindler ends up impaled by the angel with the sword.

THE STRANGER was the only movie Wells was credited with directing that made a profit. Perhaps, in his attempt to be commercial, he felt simplistic moralizing sold better than complexity and contradiction. He was apparently right.

© 2015 Mike Welch

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